Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 | 2 a.m.
One of the hallmarks of good government is transparency. The public should know what is happening and why decisions are being made. That’s why Nevada has laws requiring government meetings and documents be open to the public. State law also requires public officials to disclose any conflicts of interest, so people can be assured the public’s business is being handled fairly.
Those laws are vitally important, but elected officials don’t always seem to understand that. For example:
• The Legislative Commission, which oversees the operations of the Legislative Counsel Bureau between sessions, recently met, as normal, in public. But a spat broke out between Republicans on the panel over an appointment. Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a Democrat, called a recess, and the Republicans went behind closed doors to settle the dispute and come to a decision.
The Legislature is exempt from the state’s open meeting law, which lawmakers say extends to the Legislative Commission. But the commission isn’t the Legislature. As Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, points out, the law says that any committee or board created by statute, such as the commission, is subject to the open meeting law.
Regardless, this is not the way to do the public’s business. As Smith said, “If this is important enough business that it needs to be conducted by the Legislative Commission, then it needs to be conducted by the public and in the open.”
Indeed. The commission should act accordingly.
• In the same session, the Legislative Commission also approved a rule requiring anyone who requests documents from the Legislative Counsel Bureau to give a reason for the request. The bureau says that is so it can determine whether the release of documents is in the public’s best interest.
That’s nonsense. The law says public records are presumed open unless there is a clear exception. In those cases, it’s the government’s responsibility to explain why the documents shouldn’t be released. There is no requirement that people state their reasons for wanting documents — nor should there be. They are the public’s and the commission should get rid of this rule.
• In May, District Judge James Todd Russell in Carson City ruled on a lawsuit filed by the Nevada Republican Party regarding how the special election in the 2nd Congressional District would be run.
In an opinion highly critical of Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller, Russell ruled in favor of the Republican Party. Now, Russell is being criticized because he failed to disclose his ties to Mark Amodei, who at the time of the case was the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party and had announced he was running in the special election.
As it was reported last month, Russell and Amodei were former law partners and they co-owned a $500 mining claim. In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, Russell tried to downplay the matter, but he should have disclosed his relationship with Amodei. The state’s judicial canons call for judges to disclose when there is a potential conflict of interest because public confidence is “eroded by ... conduct that creates the appearance of impropriety.”
The bottom line is that transparency helps build trust between government and the people. These examples show there’s still much work to do in that regard.